This building is still locked, a year after Montreal paid $ 6.5 million to transform it into social housing

In September 2020, the City of Montreal took the unusual decision of spending more than $ 6.5 million to buy back a sought-after property from developers in the city’s Parc-Extension district to transform it into social housing.

But more than a year later, community groups working on the building’s development – known as the Johnny Brown Building or Plaza Hutchison – say they haven’t seen any movement forward.

The building’s door has been locked and its interior excavated, in anticipation of renovations that have not yet started.

Community groups in the area known as Park Ex say the city‘s current system is inadequate to provide housing to all who need it.

“In Parc-Extension alone, we have around 700 people on the waiting list for social housing. So even with the plaza and the Acadia site, this is not enough, ”said Celia Dehouche, spokesperson for the Parc-Extension Action Committee.

Across from the Parc de Montreal metro station, Plaza Hutchison was once a bustling community center with family-owned shops, prayer spaces, an immigrant aid center, and even a local radio station.

In 2017, the building was bought by the real estate developer BSR Group to build luxury apartments. After all the tenants were evicted, residents pushed back, saying the condos would take them out of their neighborhood.

Plaza Hutchison was once a bustling community center with family owned shops, prayer spaces, an immigrant aid center, and even a local radio station. It was bought by developers in 2017 and then by the city in 2020. (Charles Contant / CBC)

The city’s decision was aimed at preventing this. But without funding from AccèsLogis, the province’s social housing program, the project has stalled.

Plaza Hutchison is not the only building to come back to life. A report by the social housing commission, 1,800 units have been under construction for more than four years.

In Montreal, there are approximately 24,000 people waiting for social housing and the average development time for housing projects is four and a half years.

Why the wait is so long

In August, the federal government announced that it would invest nearly $ 338 million (of which at least $ 46 million must go to Montreal) to support the development of 1,300 new affordable housing units in Quebec over the next year.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government also invested in AccèsLogis to complete the units promised by the previous Liberal government, but did not invest in the development of new projects such as Plaza Hutchison.

In a statement, Bénédicte Trottier-Lavoie, spokesperson for the provincial Minister of Housing, Andrée Laforest, said that of the 15,000 units promised by the Liberals, 7,000 have been built and as many are still in development.

Last Friday, Laforest announced $ 250 million for the renovation and creation of social housing through AccèsLogis and Logements Abordables Québec. In Montreal, 307 projects are eligible for funding under the program, which is a far cry from the thousands of units remaining to be built.

Experts and critics alike are wondering how the city will keep its promises of 12,000 affordable and social housing units.

Valérie Plante, a candidate for a second term, recently pledged an additional 60,000 units over the next decade. Candidates Denis Coderre and Balarama Holness have respectively pledged 50,000 and 30,000 units.

Hélène Bélanger, professor of urban studies and tourism at the University of Quebec in Montreal, said such promises are unrealistic if the province and the federal government do not spend more money on housing.

Hélène Bélanger, professor of urban studies and tourism at the University of Quebec in Montreal. (Émilie Tournevache at the Audiovisual Service / UQAM)

Consequently, according to Bélanger, the city finds itself in a “bizarre situation of being able to invest, but [it] does not have enough money to complete the projects. “

The longer projects take to complete, the more expensive they become as construction costs and land prices rise over the years, creating another hurdle, experts say.

The city has several buildings that could be converted into social housing, such as the Chinese hospital in Villeray, but because they are not included in the 15,000 units promised by the previous administration, funding is nowhere to be found.

“The problem is that we start these projects, then the prices go up, and it takes so long that we see that the projects will not be done because now it is too expensive”, declared Andrés Fontécilla. , Member of Parliament for Québec solidaire and spokesperson for the party on housing. .

“So the sooner you complete these projects, the more financially viable they become. You have to fund them immediately.”

Can private developers fill the void?

With long delays in social housing, experts say protection around the private rental market is crucial.

It seems to me that this is a loophole that should be tightened much more precisely to force owners to build social or affordable housing.РAndr̩s Fontecilla

Community groups have long called for a public rental registry to minimize excessive rent increases and temporary rental bans, for example. Bélanger pointed to strict zoning laws and protocols for renovations to prevent landlords from evicting tenants to renovate and rent the unit at a higher price.

“If we don’t protect what exists, which remains affordable, that puts pressure on the structure of social housing. If people cannot afford to live in private rental housing, they will need social housing. everything is linked, ”she said. .

Bélanger also pointed out that Montreal new housing regulations, which requires developers to make a percentage of newly built units affordable, or face fines.

While experts and community groups are mostly supportive of the changes, many say it’s still too easy for developers to break away from affordable unit requirements.

“It seems to me that this is a loophole that should be tightened a lot more, precisely to force landlords to build social or affordable housing,” Fontecilla said.

Alternative financing is possible

In the absence of more funding, some experts say the city should consider ways to fund housing projects that don’t depend on government programs, like the para-municipal Montreal Housing and Development Corporation.

Founded in the 1980s, the initial mission of the SHDM was to acquire buildings, renovate them and either donate them to non-profit organizations or rent them.

A poster pasted in Plaza Hutchison declares that the area is “not for sale”. (Charles Contant / CBC)

Although its activities have changed, the agency still has a few thousand units in the city and has a portfolio of $ 622 million, funded by its own activities.

“They could use this asset to finance other acquisitions without always having to wait for the Quebec government to finance, because the financing of the Quebec government is really necessary but we know at the moment that it is not guaranteed”, said Louis Gaudreau, professor at UQAM. school of social work which has researched the housing crisis.

Community groups say they feel disheartened by the blockade, which is a big reason the housing protests are targeting Legault’s government.

Dehouche of the Parc-Extension Action Committee said that if only the city had approved the development plans for Plaza Hutchison and allocated “at least half the money to start the project, maybe he would have been ready next year “.

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